Why Shakespeare should not move to Los Angeles

Shakespeare’s plays are often called ‘timeless’. But should we really treat them as such?


Hero or Anti-Hero? Whedon’s Hero gets to say very little. (Promotional still included in the 2013 Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment dvd-package. Director of photography: Jay Hunter.)

Recently, star writer Joss Whedon brought his version of Much Ado About Nothing to the screen, which, overall, resulted in a well-played and occasionally funny film. He moved the action from sixteenth-century Sicily to twenty-first-century California, which is well enough: turning Leonato’s noble court into a mafia clan presents a clever solution to some of the problems this presents. Where Whedon may have gone wrong, however, was when he kept the original text.

Now this is a text which, to present-day North-American ears, sounds deeply misogynist as well as racist. A happy woman is a silent woman. A bride must be a virgin (but a groom must not). A single word of slander is enough for a father to want his daughter dead. And a brown-skinned woman is understood to be an undesirable one.

All of this is not surprising in a sixteenth-century text, for in Shakespeare’s society a man could be what we think of as a sexist and a racist, and still be considered a decent person. But things have changed. And a movie in which a present-day North-American household lives by the same ideas as sixteenth-century Englishmen, is odd if nothing more.

It is true that Shakespeare offers emancipating moments, most obviously in the role of Beatrice. She lets Benedick have it with both barrels – until her mouth, too, is stopped towards the end of the play. Admittedly, Joss Whedon has fiddled a little with the dialogue, altering some pronouns, in order to squeeze two more women into the list of speaking characters, which is almost completely male in Shakespeare: Conrade and the clerk are played by actresses in the film.

But if you turn a sixteenth-century play into a twenty-first-century movie, you should go further than that. At least in gesture and facial expression, show the opinions of characters who do not get to speak their minds: they may not always agree with the more vocal characters. (Hero gets to speak even less in the film than on stage.) And at least change Claudio’s line about ‘even’ being willing to marry an Ethiope – referring to ‘black’ women. Unless as a director you expressly decide to portray Claudio as a racist person, you risk ending up making your entire film a racist film. (Because this impression is only strengthened by the fact that all the speaking roles are played by pink actors. Brown actors are relegated tot the extras bench.) Even then, it remains an open question whether such measures are sufficient to turn Shakespeare’s lines and plot into a believable twenty-first-century North-American story.

My aim is not to chide either Shakespeare or Whedon for being racist or misogynist; rather, what I am saying is that Much Ado About Nothing, as it turns out in Whedon’s version, does not escape being a racist and misogynist play in the end; and that this could happen because the director made some unlucky choices.

To put it simply: either change the text, or change the textile. As it is, Whedon invites us to watch sixteenth-century characters in a modern environment; to judge sixteenth-century people by twenty-first-century standards. And those clothes do not fit too well.

How Not to read (or Occupational disease II)

Do you read a lot for your job, or for other reasons?

Try this:

Walk around town. You will see hundreds of texts, words, letters: advertisements, traffic signs, shop names, bus schedules…

'Piccadilly Circus neon signs', photographed by Billy Hicks. CC-BY-SA 3.0

Can you NOT read this? (‘Piccadilly Circus neon signs’, photographed by Billy Hicks, 2008, CC-BY-SA 3.0.)

Or try looking up something on the Internet. Or in the library. Or even in a dictionary. Words shoot at you from every corner. On some websites they have even acquired a habit of blinking and blipping in and out of sight. Worst of all: seat back advertising in airplanes. (As one ad space seller puts it on its website: ‘cannot miss attention of a traveler.’)

This is what usually happens to me in such a situation: as soon as one of these texts hits my eyes, I read it. Automatically. Whether I am interested or not. My head gets filled with stuff I do not want to know.

Sometimes it gets so bad that I read the words in a picture book before looking at the picture on the page.

Recognise any of this?

Here’s the prescribed treatment:

Look at a word in a script you don’t know. It’s just an abstract picture. No information. Meaningless (if I am allowed to say so). How wonderful.

... but how to read this? (Seal with Cretan hieroglyphs, c. 1800 BCE, photographed by Ingo Pini)

How to read THIS? (Seal with Cretan hieroglyphs, c. 1800 BCE, photographed by Ingo Pini, public domain.)

Hold on to that feeling.

Now look at a word that’s quite common to you, in a language and script that you do know. But do not read it. I repeat: do not read it.


Remember what it was like not to be able to read. You’ll quite simply going to have to unlearn your alphabet. (This should not be attempted in the middle of writing a hfjkaioal sfh fgkj ok got it again).

When you’ve mastered the trick, go out onto the street. Or a library. Or the Internet. And try it out in the wild.

Let me know how you are getting on. (If you got to the end of this piece, you might want to try again.)

This is the second in a series. Earlier: ‘Occupational Disease?’


Occupational disease?

I admit it; this moment may count as my official coming out.

'Papers/document pile' by Niklas Bildhauer, 2008, CC BY-SA 2.0

‘Papers/document pile’ by Niklas Bildhauer, 2008, CC BY-SA 2.0

I am a perfectionist.

Many people suffer from this affliction: historians, but others as well.

Still, misconceptions about perfectionism abound, and I feel I must seize this occasion to set straight one particularly tenacious one.

We perfectionists do not need everything we do to be supergood.

All we want is to see it complete: perfectionism comes from the Latin perficio: to finish, to round off, to persevere until the work is done.

That is why I take so much time writing this history-chapter that I am currently working on. That is why I take an hour publishing a short Historian-at-Large post.

It’s not that it needs to be excellent (‘perfect’ is the confusing term often used).

It’s just that I hate loose

P.S.  Any grammatical or tyoing mistakes discovered in this text can safely be taken to be part of my behaviour therapy.


Give Us an Ordinary Bearded Lady

The Eurovision Song Contest of 2014 ended with the winner pleading for tolerance and respect. In her press conference, Conchita Wurst said that her winning the contest

showed me that people want to move on, to look to the future. We said something, we made a statement

Her performance was certainly brave and her victory real. What’s more, in the face of the homophobic backlash that has also been going on in Europe (but do these people watch the Song Contest?) and a song that was less than catchy (I left the couch with Dana International’s ‘Diva’ stuck in my head rather than ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’, even though I had just heard the latter twice) the audiences and juries of Europe have decided to make a statement indeed.

But was it simply a statement of progress? Did we indeed ‘move on’? Could Conchita Wurst not have performed her song a hundred years ago?

Wurst’s image reminded me of a character in a novel I read a long time ago: Mathilde, in Ted van Lieshout‘s masterly Raafs Reizend Theater.

Conchita Wurst with her hair down. Photo edited from the Salzburger Nachrichten.

Conchita Wurst with her hair down. Photo (by unknown photographer) edited from the Salzburger Nachrichten.

Mathilde with her hair up. Drawn by Ted van Lieshout for the cover of Raafs Reizend Theater (Amsterdam, 1986).

Mathilde earns her living as the Bearded Lady in a show. Precisely: a little bit like Conchita.

But we can go further back.

Nineteenth-century fairgrounds formed the workplace of many people with ‘curious’ bodies: from the ‘miniature man’ to the ‘fat boy’, from ‘Anita the Living Doll’ to ‘Lofty the Dutch Giant’. Relics of these and other performers can be found in the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield.

To what extent they were performing voluntarily must have varied. To what extent the features they were known for should be seen as disabilities or, quite the opposite, as skills, is an equally nuanced matter. But what is, I think, true for all of these people, is that they lived with certain bodies and minds every day of their lives: that to themselves they were their ordinary selves: ordinary selves which they had to cope with; ordinary selves which they might enjoy.

As soon as they got onto the stage, however, their bodies and/or minds became a spectacle, a curiosity, a matter of entertainment.

And that is, of course, also exactly what Conchita Wurst was at the Eurovision Song Contest: a stage performance.

The Bearded Lady as a stage performance is not new. Bodies that cross the borders of what is deemed normal are not new. To display them is not new.

If people want to truly ‘move on’, as Wurst hoped, they must be able to see Conchita’s beauty off stage as well as on stage. They should see her feminine beauty and her masculine beauty all at once, in the dressing-room as well as under the spotlights. And the same, of course, applies to the ‘midget’ and the ‘giant’.

I am not sure such a thing will ever happen, because if the extraordinary becomes ordinary, what will we watch on a Saturday night? We crave the spectacular alongside the normal.

But in as far as it concerns the ‘freaks’ I have been writing of – that is, in as far as it concerns real individuals who are turned into curiosities – it may be something worth striving for.

Conchita, I hope to meet you drinking an ordinary Eiskaffee on an everyday Vienna terrace this summer!

N.B. As far as I know, Raafs Reizend Theater has not yet been translated.

What was language for again?

The other day, I came across a nice example of the way many Europeans thought at the eve of the First World War.

At that time, Abraham Mossel was making a journey on foot through Europe together with three friends. They became known as de Wereldwandelaars, the Worldwalkers.

One of the studio photos the Worldwalkers sold on their way to finance their journey. This one can now be found in the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam, http://www.jhm.nl/collectie/fotos/40010100.

One of the studio photos three of the Worldwalkers sold on the road, to finance their journey. Abraham Mossel on the left. This postcard can now be found in the Joods Historisch Museum in Amsterdam, http://www.jhm.nl/collectie/fotos/40010100 (the copyright may still lie with an unknown Hungarian photographer).

In 1912, they arrived in Austria-Hungary. Back then, the Austrian-Hungarian empire stretched over a wide territory and contained a huge variety of languages, each with its groups of native speakers. Mossel was amazed at the unwillingness of many people he encountered to communicate with other language communities. On their journey through the country, the Worldwalkers talked to many different people, from workers (‘arbeiders’) to fraternity-students. But all of them disappointed in their lack of cooperation.

Reusachtig arbeidsvermogen, dat voor gezamenlijk opwaarts werken benut had kunnen worden, gaat nu verloren in ‘t bevechten van elkaar.

(An enormous amount of labour power which could have been applied together to progressive work , is now lost in fighting each other.)

The Worldwalkers were Esperantists. They were learning and teaching Esperanto, a language constructed in the later nineteenth century for neutral communication between language communities. It embodied the hope (‘espero‘) for a greater mutual understanding between speakers of different languages, both at a local-community level and between states (perhaps even preventing wars?).

It was an encouraging fact that the Worldwalkers encountered quite a few Esperantists in the Austrian-Hungarian empire. But what was that?

In Weenen vonden we niet één enkele groote Esperanto-vereeniging, maar allerlei kleine groepjes, door elke nationaliteit slechts voor zichzelf gevormd. Als wij daar b.v. op een bijeenkomst van de Boheemsche Esperantisten waren, dan hoorden wij er nooit anders dan Esperanto of Boheemsch praten. De andere talen werden er veel te erg verfoeid.

(In Vienna we did not find one single big Esperanto-club, but all kinds of small groups, formed by each nationality just for itself. When we were there at for example a meeting of the Bohemian Esperantists, we heard speak nothing but Esperanto or Bohemian. The other languages were loathed much too much.)

Such was the situation everywhere in Europe just before war broke out. It made me wonder whether we have become any less exclusive.


source: A. Mossel, De Wereldwandelaars. Een zwerftocht door Europa (Amsterdam, 1917), 178-80.



Mimic women

Yesterday I heard a talk that made me wonder whether a much-used concept for men might not in some instances better apply to women.

Braia's wall stencil of a man with umbrella. Look how the ink really only pictures his costume (and some shadow in his face): his flesh blends with the wall and could be of any colour.

Braia’s wall stencil of a man with umbrella. Look how the ink really only pictures his costume (and some shadow in his face): his flesh blends with the wall and could be of any colour. N.B. this photo was taken by SliceofNYC (CC) on Flickr, but I do not know Braia’s own stance on the copyright of their work.


[A]lmost the same but not quite


Almost the same but not white

This comes from Homi Bhabha’s essay ‘Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse’. Post-colonial writers like V.S. Naipaul and post-colonial theorists like Homi Bhabha have studied the phenomenon of the ‘mimic men': colonial administrators who would function as ‘translators’ between the colonisers and the colonised of the eighteenth- to twentieth-century world. ‘Indigenous’ men from India, for example, would go to school in London, clothe themselves in black suits, carry around umbrellas, read the Times in the rush-hour underground (this is how I picture it: it is not in Homi Bhabha’s essay)… and so they would come to mimic Englishmen, continuing this mimicry after their return to India. In spite of their transformation, however, there always remained ‘the difference between being English and being Anglicized':

Mimicry is [...] the sign of a double articulation; [1] a complex strategy of reform, regulation and discipline, which ‘appropriates’ the Other as it visualizes power. Mimicry is also [2] the sign of the inappropriate, however, a difference or recalcitrance which [...] poses an immanent threat to both ‘normalized’ knowledges and disciplinary powers.

This is what makes the phenomenon so important, historically. Although stimulated by the colonisers, it also scared them. The act of mimicking showed the emptiness of the English (French, Dutch, …) colonist’s own identity:

Mimicry conceals no presence or identity behind its mask: it is not what Usaire describes as ‘colonization-thingification’ behind which there stands the essence of the présence Africaine. The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority.

It undermined colonialism by

articulat[ing] those disturbances of cultural, racial and historical difference that menace the narcissistic demand of colonial authority. It is a desire that reverses ‘in part’ the colonial appropriation by now producing a partial vision of the colonizer’s presence; a gaze of otherness, that shares the acuity of the genealogical gaze which, as Foucault describes it, liberates marginal elements and shatters the unity of man’s being through which he extends his sovereignty.

In other words, the colonisers felt themselves being watched by their own image in the mirror.

Yesterday, I heard an inspiring talk by post-colonial historian Coll Thrush. It was about Indigenous travellers from North America, Australia and New Zealand visiting London, from the sixteenth century through to now. Their presence and their activitiy ‘indigenised’ the city. (As soon as his book will be finished, we will once again be better able to feel their presence in London, with the help of the walking-tours that he is creating for the book!)

Engraving of Pocahontas or Rebecca Rolfe by Simon van de Passe, 1616. Digital image from Wikimedia commons after a print in the British Museum, London.

Engraving of Pocahontas or Rebecca Rolfe by Simon van de Passe, 1616. Digital image from Wikimedia commons after a print in the British Museum, London.

Coll Thrush also showed images of many of these Indigenous visitors. Strikingly, many of the men he discussed were dressed in the Indigenous clothes they (in most cases) grew up with. In contrast, most of the women on these pictures wore British clothes (like Pocahontas on the picture above).

This reminded me of the widely-researched idea in sociolinguistics that women use more prestigious forms of speech than men. More often, they avoid slang and ‘working-class’ pronunciation, for example. (see footnote)

In my own work, I have seen Dorothy Wordsworth’s pride in applying the German that she had learnt in the German-speaking lands of central Europe, and so blending in. On the whole, both female and non-elite travellers of nineteenth-century Europe seem to talk the local language of the places they visited more than did male elite travellers.

Of course, men learnt languages as well, and women were often keen to affirm their difference from locals, rather than their similarity. But perhaps, in cases when the locals had a high social and political status, women had reason to want to look and sound like the locals – and perhaps they had somehow more reason than their male companions?

Of course, the women I have mentioned were no colonial sub-administrators, who had gone to school in the ‘centre’ of their empire (London, Paris, etc.). So they were not quite the familiar ‘mimic men’. But they played important roles in the translation of knowledge across cultures. Some of them already had a higher status than the people they visited, but many of them were in some way marginalised, and thus comparable to the mimic men. And all of them apparently had their reasons for wanting to blend in. They inevitably held up a mirror to the people they visited – though a distorted and sometimes a disturbing mirror, no doubt, in the eyes of the locals.

So perhaps it is fruitful to consider the existence of ‘mimic women’?


Note: See Peter Trudgill’s seminal article ‘Sex, Covert Prestige and Linguistic Change in the Urban British English of Norwich’ and Elizabeth Gordon’s ‘Sex, Speech, and Stereotypes: Why Women Use Prestige Speech Forms More than Men’, both published in the journal Language in Society.